Going For Broker-less
By ramping up their customer service staff and bypassing the middleman, First Step Greenhouses deals direct, which has strengthened the communication it has with its customers.
September 11, 2009
Dan Gibson didn't grow up in the horticulture industry. You can't fault him for that, though, because his route to growing might be the next best thing.
Gibson, the president of First Step Greenhouses, was first introduced to greenhouse growing as an engineer for Q-COM, a horticultural environmental controls company.
"After our guys installed a new system, I would sit down with the owners to customize the program to fit their needs," Gibson says. "By doing that, I was exposed to all of the best, top greenhouses in the country. I also got to see first hand what the industry was like."
Not long after, Gibson decided to "jump in" and build a growing operation called First Step Greenhouses, which is now 12 years old and located in Temecula, Calif. "With the benefit of having seen a lot of how things are done well, I sat down to design a better one from everything that I've learned."
Outside The Industry
Not being from the industry, Gibson didn't have any preconceptions of how a greenhouse operation should be. "So I set out talking to customers about what they liked and didn't like about their existing suppliers," he says.
Gibson noticed a trend. There were several problems growers had based on service they received from their brokers and suppliers. To offset the probability of First Step having these same issues, Gibson decided to follow the business model of Dell Computers.
"In my experience, I had watched Dell climb quickly to the top of the computer world by selling directly to the consumer and also offering direct customer service," he explains.
For Gibson, that made perfect sense. "Who's going to know more about a Dell, the kid at a general computer store or the actual tech that works for Dell?"
According to Gibson, customers get better service directly from the source and he saw that same opportunity with First Step Greenhouses. "My staff is providing better service than the brokers and there's no delay in the service, a shorter chain of communication and fewer chances to make mistakes," he says.
Early on, First Step did try its hand at selling through a broker, which Gibson says "was fine," but he quickly realized the future of his business was going completely direct, without the inclusion of brokers.
"I think brokers have their place, but I do see most of the young plant producers beefing up their customer service staff, working directly with customers," he says. "We started building this company with very talented people, but some of our best ideas come from listening to our customers, and that would get lost through the broker."
Resourcing Down Under
First Step Greenhouses grows "everything but woody ornamentals," focusing heavily on annual and perennial plugs and some vegetative varieties. Presently, Gibson is very excited about a First Step program called Celebrated Plants that teams with Australian supplier Ozbreed.
And as California is suffering its third straight year in drought, Gibson knows how important this series is for retailers and homeowners throughout the water-rationed United States.
"It's a drought tolerant series that doesn't contaminate our native population," Gibson says. "They are extremely low maintenance and only need to be cut back every three to five years instead of annually." This line is comprised of the genera dianella and lomandra, and hardy to Zone 7.
Along with its Aussie cooperative, First Step recognizes the variety and large amounts of production going on around the world in the open market. "An open market means that anybody can buy and sell plant genetics," Gibson says. "This has rapidly caught up, which can be equal to and in some instances even better than those protected and controlled varieties."
He goes on to say that there will always be protected varieties when they first come out. However, four or five varieties with extremely similar genetics could be accessible in the open market.
"I think in general, there's so much breeding going on in the world and there's so much more understanding of plant breeding and genetics, there will always be plenty of alternatives and less differential in the genetics themselves."
Thanks to his background in environmental controls, you can bet Dan Gibson's greenhouses at First Step run efficiently.
A concept taken from Pan American's research greenhouses, First Step has used positive pressure greenhouses since the company's inception, which brings pads and fans to the same side of the greenhouse.
"Our fans pull through a room that has one big pad in it and pushes air through tubes in the greenhouse and the air comes out of holes in the tubes," Gibson says.
This method provides First Step with even distribution of cooling, which, in turn provides consistent production quality. Gibson says positive pressure greenhouses work best with a hot-dry environment.
And even though this cooling system offers consistency, subjecting young plants to a variety of growing climates is something First Step makes a top priority.
"We tone plants to withstand abuse, to acclimate them to the worst grower," Gibson says. "One of the keys to our growing is moving the product throughout these different environments so we're always pushing that plant to get to the next level, but at the right time."
First Step uses Cravo retractable-roof greenhouses for hardening off and Dutch-palletized rolling benches for easy movement
Mihalek is a former Meister Media Worldwide editor.